A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is the author of ten novels, from The Bluest Eye(1970) to A Mercy (2008). She has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She lives in New York.

I recently read A Mercy. I found it a difficult book, both to understand and to appreciate. In fact once I’d read it I went back to the beginning and read it again, almost straight away and then found myself turning back to the first page again.The narration moves between the characters and at times I wasn’t sure whose voice I was reading and had to backtrack several times. Even on the second reading, I was not sure, even though the characters have different ways of talking.

From the back cover:

On the day that Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, agrees to accept a slave in lieu of payment of a debt from a plantation owner, little Florens’ life changes. With her intelligence and passion for wearing the cast-off shoes of her mistress Florens has never blended into the background and now at the age of eight she is taken from her family to begin a new life. She ends up part of Jacob’s household, along with his wife Rebekka, Lina their Native American servant and the strange and melancholy Sorrow who was rescued from a shipwreck. Together these women face the trials of their harsh environment as Jacob attempts to carve out a place for himself in the brutal landscape of the north of America in the seventeenth century.

It’s definitely character-based, and the plot is hard to follow (at least I thought so), although on the second reading it was much clearer. It begins with a confession:

Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark – weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more – but I will never unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth.

and it was only at the end that I could understand the beginning.The writing is lovely, the mood is melancholy and touching.The setting is America in the 1680s – 1690. It’s a land still largely unknown territory that regularly changed hands, a land where you couldn’t be sure who was friend or foe. The themes of this novel are slavery, racism and religion, with a mighty emphasis on motherhood and the position of women in that time and place.

A Mercy is not my favourite Toni Morrison book and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read any of her other books, but it is thought provoking and moving. I prefer Song of Solomon and Beloved.

  • Source: my own copy
  • Rating: 3/5

3 thoughts on “A Mercy by Toni Morrison

  1. I might try this one despite the fact that you didn’t like it as well as her others. I’m intrigued by that period of our history and perhaps I might enjoy it simply because of the history. I’ll wait until cool fall weather though – can’t read someone like Morrison when it’s hot and humid, plus I’m having a couple bad days from chemo.


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